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FOOD

What virtual cooking lessons with my grandmother taught me

Their importance cannot be precisely measured — much like the ingredients in her dishes

illustration by Carole Henaff

Food, in my grandmother’s world, is a love language of its own. Every time I visit her, I return home with some sort of new spice or gadget for my kitchen. When I told her I liked her rolling pin, she procured one just like it for me, in a style that’s virtually impossible to find in the United States. After a two-week trip to India, she sent me home with an onion slicer that she had ordered in bulk and distributed to four other relatives. On our most recent visit to the Indian grocery store near her home in Rochester, N.Y., she greeted the shopkeeper by name, grabbing my hand and proudly announcing, “This is my granddaughter.”

I tried to record her recipes for the first time when I was 15, visiting Rochester from my home in California. Certain tasks, like rolling out the dough for chapatis (a pan-fried flatbread) and puris (a similar kind of bread, only deep-fried), were things I had been helping with for years, and were innately familiar to me by then. Others, like the components of the dough itself, were a total mystery. That summer, sitting across from my grandmother (or Aaji, as I call her) as she mixed yogurt and spices together for a tandoori chicken marinade, I asked her for the measurements so I could write them down. She balked.

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“In Indian food, you don’t need to measure anything,” she said. “You have to taste it, and see if it tastes right.”

I nodded, but didn’t intend to follow her advice, preferring strict measurements over improvisation.

Over the next few years, whenever I visited, I asked her to teach me how to cook her dishes. Often I would wake up in the morning, groggy from jet lag, to find that she had already finished preparing the day’s food. I did, however, manage to extract a few reluctant Imperial system approximations.

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Back in California, I tried to recreate one of my favorite dishes of hers, batata chi bhaji. The dish is made by boiling, peeling, and cubing potatoes, and then stir-frying them with onions, chili peppers, and various spices. The recipe my mother had given me called for eight Yukon Gold potatoes and one and a half yellow onions, listing each spice with an exact amount. At the grocery store, I found the largest potatoes and onions I could, and got to work. The resulting bhaji filled two gigantic frying pans, and was so soggy and bland that it was practically inedible. I decided it was time to ask for some guidance.

Batata Chi Bhaji, a.k.a. Potato Bhaji.
Batata Chi Bhaji, a.k.a. Potato Bhaji.Maya Homan

Although the pandemic kept me and my Aaji apart geographically, in other ways it brought us closer together. Stuck at home with a part-time job managing a newsletter, I filled some of my free time by asking her to teach me Marathi, her first language (one of four she can speak fluently), over FaceTime. After a few weeks, she began teaching me to cook as well, sprinkling Marathi phrases and stories about her life in between cooking lessons.

When my Aaji immigrated to this country from India in 1967, Boston was the first city she set foot in. It wasn’t until my second year at college in Boston that she mentioned having ever even been here. Standing in my kitchen in Mission Hill, listening to her guide me through her recipes, I couldn’t help but feel like things had come full circle.

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I propped up my cellphone so she could supervise as I chopped vegetables and peeled garlic. I’d hold the camera up so she could see the pan as I seasoned the food, letting her guide me.

“Kiti?” I’d ask in Marathi, holding up a spoon as I slowly scattered spices across the dish. How much?

“Does it taste right?” she’d ask in response. I had no way of knowing.

Because I don’t particularly look the part, it can be hard sometimes to say that I’m Indian American and not feel like an imposter. The reactions I receive when people find out I’m half Indian tend to range from surprise to disbelief. It’s difficult to feel connected to Indian culture, especially because I don’t speak any Indian language fluently. But this past year of cooking lessons with my Aaji has given me more than just a few extra recipes in my arsenal. These dishes are a part of my heritage that I can claim as my own, without uncertainty or guilt.

The spices used in batata chi bhaji include turmeric, curry leaves, cumin, asafoetida powder, and mustard seeds.
The spices used in batata chi bhaji include turmeric, curry leaves, cumin, asafoetida powder, and mustard seeds.Maya Homan

There are no words in Marathi that mean “I love you.” Like many other English niceties, including “please” and “thank you,” the phrase does not quite translate, but the sentiment gets expressed in other ways. For my Aaji, cooking is her declaration of love to us. Consuming her food — and continuing the tradition of cooking myself — is how I echo it back to her.

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Now that my family is fully vaccinated, my Aaji was able to visit us in California. We spent the day in the kitchen, cooking side by side for the first time in nearly two years. After spending several hours making four different dishes, we decided to take a break and brew some tea. As I began to pour water into a pot, my Aaji cried out, “Wait!”

I turned to her, expecting some sort of mishap. Instead, a surprise.

She held out a mug and said, “Measure it.”

The author and her grandmothers, Rekha Gholkar (left) and Terry Atkinson (right).
The author and her grandmothers, Rekha Gholkar (left) and Terry Atkinson (right).Maya Homan

Maya Homan can be reached at maya.homan@globe.com.